Stopping Death By Powerpoint With Ellen Finkelstein

by | May 6, 2021 | Podcasts

SWGR 565 | Powerpoint Presentation


How do you hold the attention of your audience while presenting your Powerpoint presentation? To speak about this incredibly useful topic, Elizabeth Bachman brings in Ellen Finkelstein, a Powerpoint specialist and co-author of Flash CS3 for Dummies. Ellen explains to Elizabeth that putting lots of text on your slides is the sure way to lose your audience’s attention. Hence, the expression “death by Powerpoint.” The human brain cannot take so much information at once. The solution? Use more visuals; the bigger the better! If you want to learn more, join in the conversation. You don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to make your Powerpoint presentations irresistible and attention-grabbing!

Watch the episode here


Listen to the podcast here


Stopping Death By Powerpoint With Ellen Finkelstein

Making Slide Shows More Engaging

My guest is Ellen Finkelstein, who is a specialist on PowerPoint. Thank you, Ellen. I’m delighted to have you here. Before I get into her impressive bio and all of that, I’d like to remind you that if you are interested in seeing how your presentation skills are doing, you can take my free four-minute assessment at In four minutes, you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where a little support might get you the results and the recognition that you are looking for. I wanted Ellen to be here because I’m a presentation skills trainer. Slides and visual elements are even more important these days than they were when we were mostly speaking live. Video is here to stay like virtual meetings.

I read that Target let go a lot of its office space in Minneapolis because they are going to have a hybrid working thing where people are going to come into the office only 2 or 3 days a week. They don’t need as much office space. That was a permanent decision. This whole thing of people meeting virtually is going to last.

The conferences of companies are realizing that they don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on hotels and you have to meet a certain number of rooms. You have to get several meals in the hotel to bring people to your location. It’s so much easier when people are online. However, for those of us who are presenting, it’s harder because here we are online and the people who are reading are at home on our laptops with all the distractions of home, maybe you’ve got your social media channels open or your phone with you. You have to be interesting.

Ellen is a PowerPoint MVP, which is an award given by Microsoft. There are only eighteen MVPs in the United States. That’s a big deal. Her well-known website is, which offers many PowerPoint Tips and the PowerPoint Tips Newsletter. I have been a subscriber for several years now. I always learn things. She also specializes in training speakers and presenters to convert Death by PowerPoint to Life by PowerPoint. That means learning how to communicate clearly and powerfully and design high-impact persuasive and professional-looking slides. Before I go onto your questions, let me ask you what I ask all my guests. If you were to have a dream interview and interview somebody from history, who would it be, what would you ask them and who should be listening?

I have been watching the Lincoln series on CNN. When I saw that question that you sent to me, I thought about interviewing Abraham Lincoln. Part of the reason is that he was such a good speaker. When he became president, he had only been a congressman one time for two years and then not gotten reelected. That was all of his political experience. He made a name for himself by being a powerful speaker. Powerful because of the opinions that he espoused and the sense of humor. At that time, for example, there are these Lincoln-Douglas debates that are so famous. Each person spoke for 1 or 2 hours. These were long talks that were done live in front of people. They had to hold their attention. It would be interesting to delve into those aspects of Lincoln.

I often think about the Art of Rhetoric, which was taught in the 19th century. It comes from the Romans. There are some of the things I use in my business that come from Roman Rhetorics. It’s now taught to preachers, especially in the Protestant church, in some of the Southern Baptist churches. It’s part of what made Martin Luther King. He’s good and such a great speaker. He studied Rhetoric because that is what preachers get taught. The rest of us in the day-to-day world, often don’t learn that. It’s one of the reasons why both you and I do what we do, is to help people be better communicators. How did you get started being a specialist on PowerPoint?

I had written a book on AutoCAD.

AutoCAD is?

It’s a computerized drafting program. The acquisition editor is like the salesperson that acquires authors and books. I moved from there to McGraw Hill. She had a book open on PowerPoint.

SWGR 565 | Powerpoint Presentation

Flash CS3 for Dummies

Do you mean a slot open to be written?

What it was with somebody else was writing a textbook on PowerPoint and they needed somebody to write things for teachers like quizzes and with the test quizzes with questions and the answers, it was a guide because it was meant for the education market. It was Glencoe, which is McGraw Hill’s educational division. She asked if I knew PowerPoint and explained it to me. I said, “You are going to give me the textbook?” She said, “Yes. How could I write the questions and answers without the textbook of what was teaching?” I said, “I know PowerPoint.” That is how I learned PowerPoint. It went on from there. They gave me an actual book on PowerPoint. I wrote about that. You might think that AutoCAD, which is used by architects and mechanical engineers, has nothing to do with PowerPoint but they are, in essence, both graphics programs. I also, eventually, co-wrote a book called Flash CS3 for Dummies. Flash is another graphics program. That’s what they had in common. I learned a lot about creating graphics and programs. That was the connection. It went from there.

When you and I connected several years ago when I was a speaker on one of your summits about the words, you said, “Here we have an unusual thing. We usually talk about graphics but here’s someone who talks about words.” Graphics are always a little challenging for me. One of these days, when maybe I hire you to come in and turn my slides, which are like the beat-up old truck and turn it into a gleaming Rolls-Royce, I know you could do the Rolls-Royce of PowerPoint. For many of us who are using PowerPoint all the time in our presentations, PowerPoint or the Mac-based programs, using slides, we all know Death by PowerPoint. I imagine everyone has an image for that. Can you tell us what you mean by Death by PowerPoint?

It simply means a slide with lots of text on it. The brain can’t take in so much information at once. People either zone out or another thing that they do is they start reading the slide but because people can’t read and listen at the same time, they don’t listen to the presenter. The presenter is going through the material more slowly than the person can read it because we can read through it faster than the person can speak through it. When you create a slide like that, you end up turning into a robot because there is almost nothing you can do except read the slides because it’s all there. You use it as a teleprompter. That’s for you and not for the audience. All of those experiences are Death by PowerPoint.

My thought is, for those of us who do presentations all the time, what I want to know from you is how we can make them more interesting? There is anybody else like me who takes the same template, adapt it over and over again and throws in new things here and there. How can we be jolted out of the box a little bit and learn how to be great? Here we are with your first slide with Death by PowerPoint into Life by PowerPoint. How could we be more visually interesting?

One of the things that you can do is to point the slides out to people. If you look at the slide, that helps get people’s attention. You can see that there are some animation there. I can talk about Death by PowerPoint and then Life by PowerPoint. One of the things that you can do, especially when you are speaking online and people can be distracted periodically says, “If you look at the slide, you will see.” You bring people’s attention back. You were talking about templates. You will see that I work without a template completely, not always. I sometimes have a border around the edge but for this purpose, I wanted to work without one because everyone might have a different one or might not have a template at all. I want you to know that I am not a designer. Everything I teach is something that non-designers can use. You don’t have to have the artistic skill to do that.

People can’t effectively read and listen at the same time. They hate it when you make them do it. We were talking about that Death by PowerPoint scenario where you make people read what was on the slide. People don’t like it. It’s this disconnect that they know they are not listening to the presenter and they are hearing the presenter saying things at a different time than what they are reading. Maybe they force themselves to read, follow the word by word as the person speaking but then, why should they be reading it all? People don’t like that experience. Short-term memory is limited. We have three types of memory. The first type is sensory memory. You take things into your eyes, ears and all your senses. You can take a lot of input but it’s very momentary.

In terms of memory, in order for it to be remembered, it has to go through short-term memory, which is limited. You can only take a little bit at a time. Three of four things are what we will remember at a time. What gets through that little eye of the needle goes to long-term memory, where we can remember a lot of things for a long time. This is our experience. We know we forget most of what we experience. There are certain things we remember for a long time. You can’t overload short-term memory. That is what that Death by PowerPoint does. Most people learn visually. You might have heard about these ideas about people have different learning styles. The research of it is maybe a little wishy-washy. What I want to explain to you is not questionable at all. It’s the fact that our brain is hardwired to pay attention to visual input. The primary visual cortex, it’s at the back of the brain. It’s fairly large compared to the primary auditory cortex, which is much smaller. This is something that was developed over a long period of time. People pay more attention to pictures than they do to text and to all things that they were hearing.

Don’t use images in your presentations just for decoration. Every image has to help people understand and remember. Click To Tweet

One of the ways to answer that question and how we can make our slides more interesting is bigger visuals and all of that. As a result of this, I came up with something that I call the talent show method. It’s based on some research by a mechanical engineer, a professor at Penn State, his name is Michael Alley. He did some research. He tried and tested students with different types of slides. He calls it Assertion-Evidence. That’s scientific research from A mechanical engineer and a professor. I call it Tell ‘n’ Show. It’s like the boy’s picture book. On one side is the text that tells the story. The other side is this big picture that shows the story. You tell it and you show it. This is simple to do. The corollary is to put one point on a slide. It’s four parts of a story.

Let’s say you have a slide like this. I’m sure you have seen slides with a lot more texts than this but even this is too much. There are things that you could do with this to still make have all of it on us, one slide and make it easier to understand. You could use SmartArt, color and turn it into a diagram. That could sometimes work as a preliminary. You have heard the thing about, “Tell them what you are going to tell them. Tell them what you told them.” You could have a slide this but done better than this. This is what you are going to tell them. When you tell them, this is too much information for people to remember at one time. What do you do? You turn it into four slides. Remember there are four points here. Setting, character, problem and solution. Here’s the setting. Describe where and when the story takes place so the reader can visualize it. I’m telling the point and then I’m showing the point.

What I have done is I have put one point on a slide. I have used the Tell ‘n’ Show method. I tell it and show it. It’s a place. That’s the point. My second point is character. Clearly describe the main character and his or her motivation situation. I have a picture of somebody who you might say about her, “She’s a real character. She’s showing herself off. She’s proud to show herself to describe who she is. Big personality.” That’s a good picture to show the point. One of the things that’s important is to not use images just for decoration. Every image has to help people understand and remember because of who she is, her character, personality, she helps you understand the point but it’s also a memorable picture. That helps people remember it. You remember her expression, hair, those big sleeves, hands on her hips, that huge smile that she has. All of that is something that you will remember and helps you understand.

You are having an emotional reaction to it. There is an emotional feeling that she’s putting out of happiness, energy and excitement. It’s a specific feeling that you want to evoke in the audience.

The third one is the problem. This was the third part of the story. What problem does the character have that creates some tension? Maybe this isn’t the ideal picture but it’s one of those stackable things and you pull it out. Is it going to fall?

It’s a game of blocks that are stacked up. The question is, “How many times can you pull a block out before the whole thing falls over?”

That creates tension. Finally, the solution. What action brings the character to a solution? It was a little bit hard to find a picture. At least I found exactly showed that as well as the character but my solution was people are seeing, talking to each other, working things out and discussing between, “We have different generations. It’s hard to tell the guy on the right but the people on the left are Asian. It looks like maybe he isn’t. Maybe they are talking out things and different points of view, different generations and different things.” That’s the solution, in this case, it would be to discuss our differences. That’s how we would work it out.

The other thing is the image illustrates what the speaker is saying. If you can put this and you could have it be the illustration for several possible interpretations but the minute the audience sees it, the minute it flashes up on the screen, you are going to say what this is about. We process it both visually and auditorily.

SWGR 565 | Powerpoint Presentation

Powerpoint Presentation: People pay more attention to pictures than they do to text or things that they hear. Make your slides more interesting by putting in more and bigger visuals.


You explain your point. That’s part of the reason that this technique works so well is that you don’t put all the texts that you are seeing on the slide. You have to explain it. It works well for the presenter, especially if you practice, which you should because that is enough information for me to know what I want to say about the slide. It’s a prompt rather than a script. Even the text is prompt. Both of them are.

If the images are prompt, why do we need slides at all? Why couldn’t we be up there talking or give them handouts, give them pieces of paper?

Sometimes we don’t need slides at all. If you don’t have slides, some of the problems are, it’s harder on the speaker. You might need notes to speak, which would be okay. You might need to practice more. The slides are prompt. It helps the speaker. If images are not going to help your audience understand and remember the point, then there is no point in having slides. From my perspective, the whole point of having slides is so that you can show images that help people understand and remember what you are saying. For the text, there is no point in having it.

Maybe you are a Math teacher and talking about Math equations, then there is no point in having slides except maybe you do need it as a prompt so the students can write it all down to save the teacher from writing it on the blackboard the way they did when I went to college. If you don’t feel that the slides serve any purpose, don’t use them. In terms of handouts, if you give people handouts at the beginning, they are generally going to read the handout while you are speaking. It can interfere with you as the presenter. I prefer giving the handout at the end as a summary of what you said.

The exception would be a place to take notes. You could have a small picture of the slide and some lines and people can use the handout to take notes, and then they will pay attention because you are making clear that not everything is on that handout. They need to take notes. There is research that shows that people who take notes, especially by hand, remember and understand more. The other research is that freshmen in college don’t do a good job of taking notes. A lot of this research is done on students. When you are speaking, if you have something like that or even if you don’t have a handout like that but you want people to take notes, you can say at some point, “This is something you should write down because it’s important.” You can prompt people to take notes. That will help them.

For those of us who are auditory learners, I tend to be primarily an auditory learner, took me a long time to realize the value of the visuals. Whereas my other half learns everything from YouTube. Me, you have to tie me to the chair to get me to study a video and to learn something from a video. I need to hear it and talk it out. The thing is that you will have both kinds of people in your audience. You want to be able to give your information a way that everybody can get it.

You have a video of this show but you also offer an audio version.We offer a transcript in a blog version because there are people who prefer to read. My guests and I are bringing important information out there. I want people to process the information in whatever way is going to make sense for them. That is a deliberate choice on my part. What are you feeling about the right moment to change the slide? When you need a new slide, how do we know this?

I have heard people say that you should talk about the next slide, start talking about it before you bring up the slide. That is splitting hairs. When you are finished discussing one topic, go to the next. If you have one point on a slide, when you finished that point, you go to the next slide. For example, I have another point here and I finished it, I would go to the next slide. As much as possible put one point on a slide.

The whole point of having slides is so that you can show images that help people understand and remember what you’re saying. Click To Tweet

One of the ways you can think about it is where would you start a new paragraph and a new thought? If you think you are writing it like an article, where would you put a header on a new paragraph?

It depends on how much is on the slide. If that’s going to be a long paragraph, I would break it up.

If we think like, “We have to change when it’s a new idea.” Our voices change automatically when we think of a new idea. We were talking to you about slides and, “I’m thinking about something else.” My pitch changed. I had a comma in there or maybe a period. That is something that a lot of people get into trouble with where they go from slide to slide.

Without any pauses.

Pausing is important. It’s the reason why you put a period at the end of a sentence. You need to say when you are finished with the thought.

I read an article in the New York Times about semicolons. What they said is that semicolons are wonderful because they can be used either as a period or as a comma. They are very flexible. As you probably know, semicolons are dying. We have a new thought. You might have looked at my slides and not paid much attention to them but I wanted to give everybody four layouts that always look good. These are ideal for those of you who are not designers and need to know how to layout a slide. PowerPoint has these different layouts. The most commonly used one is called Title and Content. It has a title and either text or picture in it. It’s a boring layout. I wanted to show you the four ways of treating this exact slide. The first one, I call this half vertical. It doesn’t have to be half but it’s a vertical thing. The text is on the left and the images on the right. In this case, I have put the text on the left. I have elaborated on it. There is a little bit more texting.

Reader, the overall title is Content Information and His Organization, then she has got three points.

What I have done with it is I have taken the default placement of the picture which is in the middle of the slide. It’s fairly small. I have extended it to the edges of the slide on the right side of the slide. I call this The 3-Side Rule. It hits the top, right and bottom side of the slide. This gives you little pieces of space. It looks a lot more modern and clean. It’s hard to describe why it looks like that. You have to look at it to see it. She’s bigger. I’ve cropped the picture to make it vertical. Before, it was a horizontal picture. When you crop a picture, you make it more powerful because you are focusing on her in writing, content. It’s a picture of her writing. There are a lot more in front of her, trees and other stuff. That is irrelevant to the picture. I have gotten rid of a lot of that. This focus of her eye is looking down at what she was writing.

SWGR 565 | Powerpoint Presentation

Powerpoint Presentation: Make the picture take up the entire slide. It’s always powerful when you do that.


The points are, be clear, be relevant and don’t be boring. That is the information that’s in there.

That’s one way of laying out this slide. Here is another one. You make the picture take up the entire slide. It’s always fairly powerful when you do that. You can run into trouble with where to put the text. I took out those three points. I have the heading there. In this case, the left side of the picture is blurred. There is a rectangle there that is semi-transparent and it goes from maybe 20% to 100% transparent. It fades into the picture. That means that the text is on top of this whiteness. It makes it clear even though it’s on top of a tree. The tree is faded. By taking up the entire slide with the image, you make the image more powerful. It’s almost always true.

The third way of doing it is to keep the title on the top and then crop it so the picture doesn’t cover that top part. You lose that problem of, “How do I make the text legible?” The text is on the top on a white background and then you crop the picture. In this case, it was hard because I needed her eye. I needed the point of the pen because of what I was talking about. It was a little hard to crop it to get it done. Nevertheless, it’s still a powerful slide that way. I’m covering three sides of the slide. The picture extends to the left, the bottom and the right. The last one is something completely different. I call this diagonal because the text is at the top left and then the pictures at the bottom right. It works best when you have an image where the background is either the same color as the slide or you remove the background. PowerPoint has two techniques for removing the background. I have used a different image. You don’t want to have a picture with a square box around it. The square looks clunky. This looks like the pencils have been placed on top of the slide. I added a shadow to give it some depth. Those are the four layouts that always look good.

It’s giving me ideas for my PowerPoints and the slides that I do. Does it matter if the image is to the right or the left? I have heard that it matters and it doesn’t matter.

Different people have different opinions about it. I usually put the text to the left and the image to the right, because at least in the United States, we read from left to right. In most places, we do. You read the text and then you go to the image. We start at the top left. We are used to reading that way, like a title in a newspaper, it’s at the top. We look at the top left because that is where it starts. Especially also when you go from slide to slide. In this case, I’m showing four layers on the same slide. If I’m going from slide to slide, it’s all in the same places you would go from slide to slide. It’s easy for the brain to know where to look each time. You don’t have to wonder where it’s all going to be. You read the text and then you immediately go to the image which shows the point, it’s the Tell ‘n’ Show method, and then you can also quickly listen to the presenter, transfer your attention to listening to what the presenter says.

Some people say that because we pay more attention to images, we should put the image on the left and the text on the right. The person will look at the image and then look for its explanation on the right as if you are using the text as a caption to the image. You could even animate it. It’s something that you can do. You can show the image and people go, “What’s that about?” There is an anticipation that will create interest. You can show the text for it. In that case, you might do it the other way around. I don’t think it’s a big deal one way or the other. You want to think about how you are using the image if you are thinking of the text as a caption to the image or the image as an explanation for the text. It could be either way. I don’t think one is right.

Our brains process images before they process text. That was the way I was taught. Readers, if you are presenting live, remember that you are the visual elements. Think about where you stand.

You mentioned something about images that I thought I have a principle for. It’s called Four Elements of a Perfect Image. Emotion is one of them. I call it BARE. The first one is to make the images Big. I have been doing this and I have mentioned that. The second one is to make them Arresting, that’s the A. You want them striking. You can see the pencils. They are colorful, so it makes it arresting. The third one is you want it to be Relevant. I did discuss the fact that images shouldn’t be decorative. Finally, Emotional. There will be some cases where an emotional image won’t be appropriate but if it is appropriate, try to find an emotional image. This is not an emotional image. Even this, she’s writing. She has that slight Mona Lisa smile on her face. As human beings, we identify with other human beings. If you have a photograph of a person, that will be a good thing. In this case, we have pencils. It’s not emotional.

Perfect images are BARE – big, arresting, relevant, and emotional. Click To Tweet

Thank you so much, Ellen Finkelstein. This has been great. On the right to the left conversation, in the Western world, we read from left to right. In Japanese, Hebrew and Arabic, you read from right to left. You lived in Israel for a while. Tell us the story about the assumptions and how these assumptions affect the way we think. If we are doing an international speech to a global audience, this is the thing one should keep in the back of one’s mind.

We lived in Israel for three years. At one point, I was sitting in somebody’s kitchen dinette area. I wanted something to drink. I asked for a glass. She said, “It’s in the first cabinet.” We were speaking Hebrew. I went to the left cabinet because to me, first, was on the left. It wasn’t there. She looked up and laughed. We both realized what had happened. For her, first was the rightmost cabinet because, in Hebrew, that’s where you start. You read from right to left. That’s where the glasses were. They were in the first cabinet, but it was on the right.

There is a way of a story to illustrate a concept. Ellen Finkelstein, thank you so much for joining us. There are so much more to know about how to use graphics to get the results that you want. In the meantime, for those of you who are interested in learning how your presentation skills are strong, try our Speak for Results Quiz. You go to It’s a free four-minute assessment. That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where a little bit of support might get you better results and the recognition that you are looking for. Thank you so much, Ellen Finkelstein. It has been a delight to have you on the show.

Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s been lots of fun.


Important Links


About Ellen Finkelstein

SWGR 565 | Powerpoint PresentationEllen is a PowerPoint MVP (Most Valuable Professional, a Microsoft award), one of only 18 in the United States. Her well-known website at offers many PowerPoint tips and the PowerPoint Tips Newsletter. She specializes in training speakers and presenters to convert Death by PowerPoint to Life by PowerPoint; communicate clearly and powerfully; and design high-impact, persuasive and professional-looking slides.